Kyle Alden Martens is standing in front of me in his studio, holding up a short sleeve turtleneck that's covered in tiny pockets. Each pocket contains a miniature blue teddy bear—the kind you'd get from a coin-operated machine in an arcade when you were a kid.
"I'm loosely referencing Operation, the game where you take little tweezers and pull out objects from another person," he explains. Working with the Centre for Art Tapes, he's in the process of making a new video of his sculptural performance work, inspired by the games we all used to play as children.
I've met Martens in his north end studio space/living room, a bright, cozy space full of lava lamps and leafy tropical plants. The references in Martens' work often aren't entirely obvious, but he uses them as his jumping-off point, or what he calls "source material." He tells me he's drawn to the familiar games we played as kids, like Duck Duck Goose, because everyone already knows the rules: "I'm interested in taking something that's supposed to be so structured and reevaluating that, probably with a queer agenda." Martens destabilizes the familiar, taking a step back and ushering in a little needed chaos—and with that comes the possibility for new rules and variations on the games we all know.
Martens graduated from his undergrad studies at NSCAD University in May, "which is crazy," he tells me, "because I feel like I've been busier than I was in school." Since then, he and his creative partner Brendan Brookbank have exhibited "Peel"—a series of hanging paper fruits that fanned open and shut, as a tongue-in-cheek take on stereotypes about queer people—first in their own home (AKA "The Fruit Stand") for a pop-up event during the Obey Convention in May, and again at the Anna Leonowens Gallery for the NSCAD Feminist and Queer Collective's Art in Drag Show in December. And he's just finished exhibiting his solo show, Equipment, at the Khyber Centre for the Arts—the first show in the artist-run centre's new downtown space.
For the Khyber show, Martens created a sculptural landscape inspired by sports, with the odd nod to video games—both of which were arenas he didn't always feel at home in growing up in rural Saskatchewan. As a queer kid who enjoyed sewing in a town of less than 300 people, there were obvious challenges. "I always found that I wasn't necessarily invited into those areas, because I wasn't like a typical kid or a typical boy," Martens explains, "so it was also like this weird space that I had to navigate through the rules."
But in Equipment, gallery-goers were the ones left to their own devices, forced to attempt to operate without the rules they'd come to rely on in a space that felt familiar, yet alien. As visitors navigated the space, they could physically sever themselves from the group by entering what appeared to be circular pool lane dividers (actually leather watch straps and clay beads) or lie on a massage table watching a performance video of fingers putting on tiny "pants"—another exercise in unsettling the familiar, as, at first glance, you could mistake the fingers for legs.
Martens was drawn to much of the equipment used in sports, like a series of hand guards on display, which had dual functions as protective gloves you'd wear to heal yourself from injury, and as performance-enhancing gear. It's that metaphorical midpoint between values that Martens hopes to find, a place where multiple identities and functions can thrive.